Kunichika, Ichikawa Danjuro IX as the Priest Mongaku

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Ichikawa Danjuro IX as Mongaku in the play Hashi Kuyo Bonji no Mongaku (The Austerities of Mongaku) 1889. Oban triptych.

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This exotic print is from a very famous Japanese story which was popular with print artists and kabuki audiences. The story, its climax and the play were a gift to ukiyo artists, involving as it did, a love story, adultery, self-sacrifice, murder, penance and redemption. Especially visual was the final scene where the penitent priest is seen suffering under a waterfall awaiting death - the scene pictured here.

Endo Morito, a samurai, became besotted by the beautiful wife of Watanbe Wataru. She rejected his persistent demands until one night when she agreed a rendezvous where Morito was to decapitate her husband. She put herself in his place and Morito, recognising his mistake took holy orders (changing his name to Mongaku) and spent three years enduring the harshest penance, eventually praying beneath the Nachi Falls in the freezing winter. At the point of death, he is rescued by Fudo Myo (a Buddhist deity of fire).

Here we see the magnificent Fudo in the centre panel. Fudo was one of the the five wise kings of Japanese Buddhism. His iconography - terrible face, flaming sword and so on were well established. On Fudo’s left, played by Ichikawa Sadanji, is Fudo’s assistant, Seitaka Doji; on the right is Nakamura Fukushike as Fudo’s other assistant Kongari Doji. Mongaku is here played once again by Ichikawa Danjuro IX. It is a magnificently robust print. Similar prints on this theme, such as Yoshitoshi’s Penance of the Priest Mongaku of 1885, use a more western delicacy in their approach; Kunichika here has made a proper theatre piece with its vulgarity, loudness, populism and awe - just as the stage production would be. It is interesting to compare the populism of Kunichika with Yoshitoshi’s restrained reaching after art… each piece has wholly different intentions and successes.

A great print, bold colours and fine impression and condition throughout. Three sheets attached on Japanese album backing.

71 x 36 cm.